“There’s so much excitement surrounding this WWE Brand Extension…”

The New Day emerges with Xavier Woods silently elected into the expository protagonist role for the opening of SmackDown, catching us up with the big news of the week: WWE SmackDown’s impending move to live broadcast, with its own roster. I’m fascinated by the kayfabe anxiety this has stirred up amongst the WWE wrestlers, wondering if their tag teams will be split up and their friendships compromised. There’s an air of worry, as if between misbehaving siblings about to be sent to separate boarding schools

Kofi wistfully muses upon the Club’s beatdown on Monday, and the oh-so-appropriately named Magic Killer briefly shattering the New Day’s whimsical unicorn fantasy. Gallows and Anderson stomp out for a rebuttal. “Do you have weekly dos?” quizzes Xavier, regarding the specific nature of the eponymous Club. “Yes, we have dues, and you’re about to have to pay them” replies Gallows, in a pun that only works in his accent and left me head-scratching for a fair old while. Styles bursts in, unable to resist spitting an emphatic wham line: “the WWE belongs to the Club!”

I turn my back for five seconds and suddenly the whole Biz Cliz are here in WWE, looking like futuristic space pirates from a dystopian post-apocalyptic social commentary 80s action movie; Gallows wearing trousers more ill-fitting than ever, and with a new truncated moniker evocative of lunchbox snacks from a British childhood. The lines blurring around what’s “allowed” in WWE as it tentatively spreads its tendrils through Japan and elsewhere, swooping up wrestlers and tossing them into a WWE ring, has made 2016 a very interesting and unpredictable time to be a wrestling fan. Having struggled through an extremely stale last 7 months of SmackDown in 2015, with no Daniel Bryan and variations on the same main event week after week, the blue brand of today is looking refreshed; with more shakeups round the corner, too.

Still, Luke Gallows is kind of a bore to watch, whichever continent he’s on.

Charlotte vs Becky Lynch

While Charlotte turning her back on her interfering, weirdly inappropriate and overbearing Hall of Famer Dad is, in any realm of possibility in real life, a Good Decision – both personally and professionally – all of WWE’s babyfaces banded together to get all weird about it via talking-heads segment on RAW. Most egregiously, Becky Lynch, who was sexually assaulted by Flair at the Royal Rumble PPV earlier this year, sat there bald-facedly saying Charlotte had “made a bad choice” and that “you don’t treat your father like that.”  Aside from the insidious wrong-headedness of making a female character defend her attacker, and the deeply unpleasant message that sends young (or any) female fans watching, surely the laws of wrestling would dictate that rejecting someone who’s been interfering in matches is a babyface move? Why is doddery old distraction-finish dad suddenly a hero as soon as his daughter makes him cry? It’s irksome that the concept of “a dad”, along with “the troops”, and “America” seems to be a sacred concept in WWE that overrides any pre-existing logical face/heel dynamics.

Despite Brie Bella enthusiastically claiming in an interview last month that “we are equal to men now!” the gendered language in WWE continues to slip out. Here, Byron quotes Stephanie McMahon referring to Charlotte as a “selfish, self-important brat,” a description that would have suited Seth Rollins several times during his Championship reign.

This is an average match, with a few fun, fast-paced reversal sequences, but once you notice Charlotte’s weaknesses, it becomes impossible not to obsess over them. The majority of her impactful moves rely on the other wrestler making themselves foolishly vulnerable or doing 90% of the physical work themselves: this is particularly notable in the brace-legs-hop that her opponents have to do to make the Figure Four headscissors suplexes work, but here she goes for a sit-out powerbomb where she doesn’t hold Becky in place at any point. She relies entirely on Lynch cinching her thighs around Charlotte’s neck, staying in place through her own strength, until Charlotte deems it appropriate to fall to the floor. If you were Lynch, you’d just let go and roll down, right? Why powerbomb yourself? Charlotte’s ensuing wavering ascent to the top rope for a moonsault features cringe-worthy bad posture, and it’s hard to know what to make of her. She doesn’t behave like a champion in the ring, or a broken underdog either. She looks clumsy, and awkward, and out of her depth.

Dana Brooke interferes as Becky Lynch locks in her armbar, for a DQ finish.

Dudley Boyz vs Golden Truth

Breezango are at ringside in their DIY VIP section, on faux-fur blankets in lurid pink and Cadbury’s purple, sipping cocktails and lounging fabulously, and my heart swells with utter joy. I can safely say, no hyperbole, that Tyler Breeze and Fandango forging a mutually beneficial partnership is the best thing to happen in WWE in the last year. Golden Truth’s entrance theme rap now has karaoke style lyrics scrolling across the screen, with a symbol of Goldust’s head as the cursor to guide you across the words, which shows a remarkable self-awareness for the important demographic who like to sing entrance themes. “I’m R Truth, they call me R Trizzle” sings R Truth (and so do I), “He’s Goldust, I call him Gold Dizzle!”

All of this is a welcome distraction from what is unsurprisingly an underwhelming match. Byron tries his hand at a metaphor: “…When you have a nice mattress but you need the right bedsheet…well, Golden Truth have found their bedsheet!” which I’m not sure I entirely understand. After an impactful spinebuster by Goldust, Fandango encourages Breeze to hop on the apron and take a selfie with the crumpled body of Bubba Ray in the background. When R-Truth kicks Breeze off, he lands daintily in Fandango’s waiting arms. All the kerfuffle allows D-Von to roll up Goldust.

After the match, Breezango flounce up the ramp cutting a promo of such intense flamboyance it would make Dalton Castle blush. Because they’re ostensibly a heel tag team, Jerry Lawler has to grudgingly admit that “gorgeolicious” (Breezango’s new portmanteau adjective for themselves) is a “good word.”

Dean Ambrose & Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens & Alberto Del Rio

Dean and Sami’s reluctant tag-team alliance has been the second most charming thing to blossom during my SmackDown hiatus: the way that you can see why Sami Zayn would be attracted to a rough-and-ready unhinged type, and why Dean could do with a goody-two-shoes in his life. They’ve both had friendship breakups that have hit them hard: Sami’s with a powerbomb on an apron that he just can’t move on from, and Roman’s championship win changing him into someone Dean’s not sure he wants to be friends with any more. They’re vulnerable and from totally different worlds, but they see why it could be beneficial to have each others’ backs, even only temporarily. Before the match, they proudly discuss their tag team track record, while Sami clucks irritatedly about Dean’s comments about Canadians. “But, Jericho, and Kevin Owens, and that Canadian border patrol guy… they’re such jerks!” flusters Dean, defensively. “I don’t want to hear it,” grumbles Sami, hinting at an adorable road trip anecdote we’re only getting part of: “You shouldn’t’ve brought those nunchucks with you anyway.”

When Alberto Del Rio insultingly calls Zayn “paperboy”, Dean takes umbrage, squares up, flexes his wrists. He’s got someone to be loyal to again. And Dean Ambrose, as much of a liability as he can be at times, is a good friend to have.

Zayn and Owens making their hatred seem fresh and raw every single time they get in a ring together is an immense skill, and every fist that flies feels like the first one. Sami and Dean are consummate professionals at absorbing damage and flinging their bodies around with reckless abandon, and Zayn makes Alberto’s backstabber look devastating. Ranallo describes Owens as “obstreperous”, and I can see it. He’s not got the casual devil-may-care attitude of when he was champion. He’s got something to prove and he’s infuriated that everyone’s in his way. Alberto, too, is building up a championship case from scratch after the disbanding of his League of Nations buddies. This match genuinely feels consequential, even if it’s just a practice.

When Dean gets cornered outside the ring and faces a double beatdown, Sami doesn’t hesitate to throw himself over the top rope and dive on both aggressors, and briefly, tenderly, squeeze Dean’s shoulder to check he’s still capable of fighting. He throws Dean in the ring and loops all the way round the apron to hold the tag rope and stretch himself desperately for a tag. It’s just a beautiful scene of tag team dynamics, where wrestlers are thinking smartly and empathetically, and you can imagine being in those shoes, having to figure out what’s best for the team and each other all at once. When Dean finally fights off his assailants and gets the hot tag, allowing Zayn to explode across the ring and Helluva Kick Berto’s face of, the tension has escalated to the extent that I had forgotten this match was happening in the middle of a SmackDown, and not something massively, massively exciting and important. Very much recommended.

Rusev vs Jack Swagger

Importantly, Lana has co-ordinated her satin bodice and pencil-skirt in SmackDown blue. If the imagery here is supposed to be a microcosmic expression of born-and-bred Americans vs Immigrant Usurpers, the message is muddied. The crowd chants “USA,” but Swagger is a crumpled t-shirt of a man, taking a beating before the bell even rings. Rusev is strong, handsome, and a champion with a beautiful girlfriend. Whose side are we supposed to be on? Swagger throws a clothesline that injures his own arm. “Look at you now, Swagger!” says Lawler, derisively. Rusev gets the win with the Accolade.

An interminable recapping of the equally interminable cat-and-mouse Roman Reigns/Seth Rollins segment on RAW follows. Mauro yelps “The Man vs The Guy!”, which is a chilling insight into a nightmarish future where all proper nouns are banned.

AJ Styles vs Kofi Kingston

AJ Styles as a heel feels much more comfortable, as he coasted for five months with zero likable or even identifiable personality traits. Styles says Kofi is a joke, an embarrassment. He wants to bring more credibility to the WWE. And I can sort of get on board with that, at least when Gallows and Anderson aren’t immediately behind him swooping around in their Dungeons and Dragons coats.

This is a fantastically athletic match, with both men busting out impressive springboard combinations that managed not to feel contrived (or maybe just seem contextually realistic in the light of other matches which have made news in the last week). Having been away for six weeks, I had secretly harboured the belief that Lawler might have moved on from his racist faux-Japanese pretend names for everything AJ Styles does, which are intended to mock Ranallo, but just end up being an embarrassment for everyone. No such luck: this week, Lawler shouts over Mauro trying to call the Styles Clash by squealing “here comes the…anni-mommi power-bomby!” and no amount of keeping the finish strong by having it result in emphatic victories can override that sort of crap.

Imagine a loud sigh.

Predictably, the match breaks down into a tumbling mess at ringside between both stables, and as Kofi rolls back into the ring a Pele Kick hits him hard in the face, leaving him dazed and vulnerable to the Styles Clash finish.

Final Thoughts

There’s an atmosphere of excitement on this week’s SmackDown, like we’re on the precipice of something important (which, hopefully, we are). Two solid matches grace this show, stories develop, and the existence of Breezango continues to be a joy.